The movie made me love the book: Jane Austen

We all have one (at least) of those books: a book that you had to read in school and weren’t that into, but is hailed throughout the English-speaking world as a masterpiece; a book that you wouldn’t read again because it’s now so fraught with memories and expectations. For me, that book was Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. It was assigned summer reading, and I waited until the last minute and ended up reading it at my grandfather’s funeral in Kansas (well, not the actual funeral, clearly). Since then, I’ve only met people who hated it – all my friends, somehow – or who loved it with a passion so girly it scared me. Could I approach a re-read with anything less than dread? Was it worth another read?

For years, the answer was no. Neil Gaiman always had something new out, or Nancy Pearl had recommended something interesting. And then I fell in love with the English actor Matthew Macfadyen, terrific in the first two seasons of MI-5, and most recently in Little Dorrit. I had to watch everything he had been in, and on that list was the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, also starring Keira Knightly. After watching the movie, I went back to the book… AND LOVED IT! So what was it about the movie that made the book pop?

First, there was humor! I had no idea Mr. Collins was supposed to be so pompous and over the top, but the scenes with him were hilarious. People had told me Jane Austen had a sly wit, but I never picked up on it; when I went back to the book, I had the actors’ intonations in mind and those parts jumped to life.

I also never really understood the big deal about the supposed social differences between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. The Bennett’s have land, animals, and servants – so what’s the big deal? Who cares if they have a two person carriage and someone else has a four seater? But then when you see Mr. Darcy’s mansion in the movie, it’s hard not to guffaw and be a little shell-shocked right along with Lizzie.

And finally, those endlessly described parties are, shockingly, so much fun! Watching the dancing and the laughing, I understood at last why they have such pride of place in Austen’s books – I want to go to one too!

That’s my own personal Jane Austen redemption story. I now love Pride and Prejudice, and was also able to repeat this whole cycle with the Masterpiece Classic adaptation of Austen’s Persuasion (Anthony Stewart Head, aka Giles from Buffy the Vampire, is hilarious in a small role as the father). How about you? Has a movie ever actually made you want to read the book next?

Further down The Road: Dystopian Fiction

image of a street sign in the desert courtesy of moominsean via FlickrIf Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road – or the movie adaptation hitting theaters October 16 – piques your interest in fictional visions of a dystopian, post-apocalyptic world, here are some other books to check out.

There’s been a massive flood and only one family, on an ark, has been saved.  Sound familiar?  The Island at the End of the World by Sam Taylor isn’t Noah’s story, but instead that of Pa and his three children.  When a stranger washes up on their island, the kids begin wondering how alone they actually are, and exactly what happened before the flood.

Into the Forest centers on two teenage sisters living in the woods of California.  Unlike some other books, Jean Hegland shows us the before, during, and after of the surprisingly calm end of civilization, while asking the question – how long do you wait for things to return to normal?

pesthouseIn The Pesthouse by Jim Crace, an unexplained environmental disaster has dismantled society and sent Franklin trekking towards the east coast and the promise of ships headed to a more bountiful Europe.  Along the way, he meets Margaret.  Part love story, part end-of-the-world road trip, this book vividly portrays the societal relationships that spring up to fill the void. 

I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson, was also recently made into a movie.  Robert Neville may be the only human left alive, but that’s not to say he’s all alone – the virus that obliterated mankind didn’t kill people straight out, it turned them into legions of vampires.  Written in 1954, this is still a great read and has influenced a ton of modern horror novelists.

If you were the last living thing on Earth, would you go insane?  Is that what has happened to the woman in David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress?  Try to piece it together as you read her stream-of-conscious recollections and commentaries.

For a modern classic, you can’t go wrong with Stephen King’s epic The Stand.  The apocalypse is brought about by a strain of super flu accidentally released from a military base, which wipes out nearly the entire population.  Those that are left divide up into two factions – Good and Evil – and battle it out.

Still looking for more suggestions?  Try A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins; or do a subject search for dystopia in the library catalog.

Music + Books = Delightful Synergy

Music and reading are subjects that, separately, many people are passionately enthusiastic about.  transatlanticism_cover_thumbBut what about great music-book pairings for those of us who love them both?  A way to soundtrack our reading, if you will.  For my own personal love match, there is something about the Death Cab for Cutie album Transatlanticism that I feel goes perfectly with the novel A Wild Sheep Chase, by Haruki Murakami, even if I can’t describe exactly why.  How about you?  Do you ever feel like a band, or an album, perfectly ties in to and accentuates the reading of a particular work?  To get you brainstorming, here are some books that use music to help tell their stories.

In Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, music and pop culture critic Greil Marcus uses The Sex Pistols’ album Never mind the Bollocks: Here’s the Sex Pistols to tell the history of the 20th century, tying the punk movement to other cultural revolts such as the Dadaists and the May 1968 French student uprising.  It is impossible to read even the introduction without an intense need to hear the songs described.

Nick Hornby, an English author, has two books that feature music heavily.  In High Fidelity (you may remember the movie with John Cusack), his narrator is obsessed with music and music matters, and structures his life by it, endlessly composing top-five lists (top five Elvis Costello songs; top five albums) as he works at a record store and tries to overcome a breakup.  This is a book that begs for a playlist to accompany it.  Another of Hornby’s books, Songbook, is an enthusiastic description of his thirty-one favorite songs, and comes with its own mix CD of eleven of the song, so you don’t have to do the legwork.

33 1/3 is a series of short books written by journalists, musicians, and fans image of stack of 33.3 books courtesy of jgarber on flickrthat focus on specific albums.  The range here is terrific: you can read an oral history of the Magnetic Fields triple album 69 Love Songs as told by participants, fans, and imitators in LD Beghtol’s 69 Love Songs: A Field Guide (and for those who like pictures, check out graphic renditions of the album at this blog); hear about Colin Meloy’s teenage discovery of the band The Replacements in Let It Be; and in Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste Carl Wilson makes a year-long, good faith effort to love Celine Dion, asking along the way why we love the albums we do.  Those are just three of the twelve books we own in this series.

Short Stories – all the narrative you want, now condensed!

There comes a point during summer – usually toward the end – when my reading momentum begins to flag and I find it difficult to muster the energy required to pick up the next 400 page book.  The answer, for me, is short stories.  Done well, a short story does everything a novel does: there’s narrative, an engaging cast of characters, a conflict or source of emotional momentum.  Plus there’s the chance to opt-out: I can read just one story, and then put the book down for 6 months without worrying I will have forgotten the characters or plot when I come back to it, or I can continue to read story after story.  A book of short stories can be just the ticket when reading time is scarce, or you simply feel like something quick yet complete, like watching a half hour TV show instead of a two hour movie.

Many authors who write full-length novels also write short stories, so you can look to see if your favorite writer also has a book of short stories out.  If St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolvesthey don’t, or you’re looking to discover something new, here are some suggestions to get you started.

Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves tells beautiful, resonant stories, mostly about children and teenagers accidentally discovering independence, and all the twisted, complicated emotions that come with it.  “Haunting Olivia” is not to be missed.

Brief Encounters with Che Guevara by Ben Fountain presents, among other stories, an American trying to plan a golf course in the war-torn mountains of Burma, and an ornithologist who discovers a near-extinct species of parrot while held captive by Columbian rebels.  Each story explores a different vividly Continue reading “Short Stories – all the narrative you want, now condensed!”